I can’t say I disagree with the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens all too often. His is the first piece of writing I turn to every Tuesday morning, so certain am I that I will be greeted by a succinct, well argued editorial, wrapped in elegant, wry prose.
But his last two pieces for the print version of the Journal have angered me, not for the thrust of his arguments, but for some ancillary matters that he allowed to slip into the writing which betrayed a bias out of keeping with his generally level headed approach.
On Tuesday, March 16, his piece Settlements Aren’t the Problem, he let fly this doozy of a paragraph:
“It’s easy to dislike Israel’s settlements, and still easier to dislike many of the settlers. Whatever your view about the legality or justice of the enterprise, it takes a certain cast of mind to move your children to places where they are more likely to be in harm’s way. In the current issue of The American Interest, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer persuasively spells out the many ways in which the settlement movement has undermined Israel’s own rule of law, and hence its democracy. And as last week’s diplomatic eruption over the prospective construction of 1,600 housing units in municipal Jerusalem shows, the settlements are a constant irritant to the United States, one friend Israel can’t afford to lose.”
Mr. Stephens falls into dangerous tropes when he stereotypes the settlers as generally ” unlikeable” or that they have manifested a profound irresponsibility by moving their children” into harm’s way.” The settlement movement in Judea and Samaria boasts the highest percentage of soldiers serving in elite units in the country; its communities regularly win awards for good government and efficiency; cooperation with local Arab communities, never reported by the mainstream media, remains vigorous and is essential to the health and welfare of the overall Arab population. And Ariel University, in the center of the territories, is now regarded as one of the primary tertiary institutions in the nation, serving Arab, Jew and Bedouin alike with unparalleled educational opportunities.
More than this, statistics reveal that the territories are no less safe than any other part of Israel, with those who live in the settlements suffering about the same percentage of attacks over the past 17 years (since the Oslo Accords), as any other portion of Israel’s population.
Mr. Stephens compounded his offense when he made a nonsensical argument on March 24, concluding his otherwise fine piece, The Netanyahu Diaries, with the following feigned address from the Israeli prime minister to the U.S. president :
“Let’s make a deal, Mr. President: Our settlements for your bombers. We can’t fully destroy Iran’s nuclear sites—but you can. You can’t dismantle our settlements—but we can. We’ll all come out the better for it, including the Palestinians. Think about it, Barack.”
The idea that Israel would move hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, splitting Israeli society in two and abandoning territory that Netanyahu has not only regarded as part of the Jewish inheritance, but, according to his own work, A Place Among the Nations, as vital to Israel’s security, for a military attack conducted by another nation, seems extraordinarily far-fetched. Israel has never out- sourced its security to another nation and likelihood of doing it in the case of Iran is remote. Add to this the uncertainty of a successful U.S. bombing raid (or any military action) against Iranian nuclear facilities and you clearly have a reflection, not of Netanyahu’s or his government’s positions on the matter, but rather those of the writer himself.
We should not forget that Mr. Stephens was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post for two years, so it is not as if he is ignorant about the Middle East conflict or unaware of its bedeviling contradictions. But the flippant dismissal of a group, their ancestral associations or valid strategic arguments for retaining vital territory, belongs not to a writer of Stephens’ renown, but to the smug, self -aggrandizing style of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman.
Jimmy Carter, another ‘expert’ on the Middle East spent years vilifying the settlers without ever visiting a settlement, rarely ever meeting a settler. That changed in June, 2009 when he accepted an invitation to enter the Gush Etzion settlement of Neve Daniel. What he saw there, by his own admission, changed his mind – at least about the future of the settlement in question.
I am sure Mr. Stephens has met settlers and has visited settlements. What I am not so sure about is his willingness to shrug off prejudices that do a disservice to his journalism, to balance and fairness – and to the cause of peace itself.